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2024 NBOA Annual Meeting: Bertice Berry: Smarter Together

Drawing on her perspectives as both a sociologist and a comedian, NBOA Luncheon Award speaker Bertice Berry discusses the importance of learning from each other.

Dec 11, 2023  |  By Cecily Garber, NBOA

From the January-February 2024 Net Assets Magazine.

headshot of Bertice Berry

Sociologist Bertice Berry, PhD., is a bestselling author and award-winning lecturer who has been named Comedian of The Year, Lecturer of the Year and Entertainer of the Year. The former host of “The Bertice Berry Show,” Berry has been featured on numerous television programs, including appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," and "BET Live.” Berry is the author of 11 bestselling books in both fiction and non-fiction, including the inspirational memoir, “I’m On My Way, But Your Foot Is On My Head.” Her writing touches on a wide range of topics including race and gender issues, sociological studies, stratification, healthcare reform, humor, spirituality, and transformational leadership. She earned her doctoral degree from Kent State University at the age of 26 and holds over 10 honorary doctorates. In her writing and educational work, Berry brings her belief that everyone has been given a unique purpose, and it is our obligation to use it to improve our own self, as well as those we live and work with.

Net Assets: Among your many roles — author, lecturer, storyteller, humorist and servant leader — you list “sociologist” first on your website. You were trained as a sociologist and have a Ph.D. in the subject, but have done many things since, including stand-up comedy and hosting a television show. How does your sociology training help you work with companies and organizations on issues such as leadership, wellness, and diversity, equity and inclusion?

Berice Berry: Once a sociologist, always a sociologist. I think I would've been a sociologist even if I never studied it. I'm what's known as a public sociologist, a sociologist that takes the concepts, ideas, research, and research skills of a sociologist into the corporate world and everyday life. Corporations and systems are people. They're not machines. So the skills are applicable. I see how macro systems intersect with and impact micro systems of our society.

Very often we see systems and programs that are supposed to deal with people, but they haven't considered human behavior. For a system to work, you have to consider human behavior at both the individual level and the societal level. So in everything that I do, even when I’m writing novels, sociology is going to be a part of it because the self is social, and that’s how I see the world. In other words, we're a product of everything and everyone we come in contact with. And the more we come in contact with, the more we evolve. That's a sociological thing.

Net Assets: Do you work with schools currently? I know you taught at the university level years ago, and now you mostly work with larger organizations.

Berry: I have worked for school districts, but more often I volunteer in schools. My kids went to a school for students with learning differences, who have above average intelligence but learn in a different way. Now my granddaughter goes to the same school my children went to. It's joyful for me to go there and see how these amazing educators deal with all of this stuff is going on while running the place and maintaining it.

Net Assets: About running the school and maintaining it — NBOA serves professionals working on the business end of independent schools. When you’re working in school finance, HR, risk, facilities, tech, you can get drawn into the details. At the same time, school business leaders need to have a vision and strategy, and think big picture. In your memoir, you talk about the importance of making time for dreaming and thinking creatively about your life so you can fulfill your potential. What advice do you have for school professionals to think big picture?

Berry: Two things. One, there was a study of healthcare executives, people who are really entrenched in the day-to-day kind of stuff, the same way NBOA members are. They were given an app where at the end of the day they were to journal three good things. The idea was to study how that impacted the way they were seeing their work. It was pretty simple at first; people would write a word or two. But they were also seeing other people's three good things, and that kind of sharing allowed them to see aspects of their day that they maybe had missed. By the end of it, they were writing pages, journaling about the good that they hadn't seen before, that was happening every day. This offered them a different view into the future of maintaining not only the good that they had done, but creating something new. In positive psychology, that's called appreciative inquiry.

We can deal with what may not be quite working through the lens of what is working and by doubling down on what is working. 

The second thing is that we can deal with what may not be quite working through the lens of what is working and by doubling down on what is working. You may be thinking, I don't have time for imagination. I'm dealing with some heavy stuff in my life right now. But you don’t have time to not see what is good. Because if I'm only seeing what is bad, my mind will begin to look for more of what is bad. That's how the brain processes information. So it's necessary to look at three good things or as many as you can find.

Net Assets: Have you used this approach in your own life?

Berry: A lot. It always takes me into ways of doing things that don't make sense to anybody else. If I'm writing novels and books, and the frustration lies with the publishing company, then why not create my own publishing company? I already have an audience and the companies I work with. Why not work with these folks, write what I love and do what I love? So this perspective lends itself to a different way of seeing, and the outcome is better than being merely comfortable. It gives you much more power than if you had remained in the comfortable place. Without it, you end up doing everybody else's work but your own, and you don't do what you love. Another way to put it is that comfortable is never that comfortable.

Net Assets: You have also said that humor can help you communicate difficult points sometimes. A lot of school leaders are asked to conduct difficult conversations these days, be it about workplace interactions, school culture or performance management. Do you think others can use humor to make difficult points?

Berry: I was not funny when I was younger. When I started teaching, I had to become funny. I was looking at the books that were on my table just before you called and the top one was “Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ.” That's just not funny. Then my daughter tells me to look up, and she's got a paper with a smile on it. I think, I must be succeeding in teaching humor because she is funny! All this is to say that I use the humor of my family, which is incredibly funny. I tapped into their humor as a university instructor because I learned that if something was interesting, funny or bizarre, people were more likely to listen, learn and want to change. Humor is a very powerful emotion.

At the same time, I don't think everybody can use humor to make a difficult point because it's very sociological. You have to be able to find what that culture finds funny. You have to find the normative things in the culture that are funny. You can't be so far on the edge or you’ll have a very small audience. To be effective, you have to be able to pull in from the center out with your humor.

Even when with dealing with topics like racism and sexism, I've been successful at helping people open their minds and their hearts towards what it is that I'm saying, because it's showing them the irony of ignorance and hatred and jealousy and all the things that divide us.

Not everybody can be funny like that, but everybody laughs. Everyone can share laughter and the things that give you joy and give you hope. And I think in using that, even when with dealing with topics like racism and sexism, I've been successful at helping people open their minds and their hearts towards what it is that I'm saying, because it's showing them the irony of ignorance and hatred and jealousy and all the things that divide us.

Net Assets: Can you give us an example of how that has worked for you?

Berry: One of the things I talk about is that diversity is not about kumbaya, and can't we all get along? Instead, it's about critical thinking. You cannot do critical thinking with one thought. My mother would say, “Inbreeding does not give birth to genius.” When I say this, immediately people are laughing. They put down the guard that's up. I'm helping them to see that this idea of pinging of one idea off of another. I'm not calling anyone inbred. I'm saying that kind of thinking doesn't produce anything new. Whatever level people are at, they can hear the humor in it. I often use my mother's voice, which is funny. But it's this very, very clever thing that this down-home woman is saying. You may hear it at the lowest level, or you may hear it at the highest level, which is where I want people to go, which is that your one kind of thinking will not give you a new idea. I use humor like that every single day.

Net Assets: It’s clear that education is very important to you; you said in your memoir that “it’s the single most important avenue for change and advancement.” Independent schools have the freedom to craft classes and curriculum independently, and run their operations independently from large-scale bureaucracy. If you could create a school that would truly advance change in our world, what might it look like?  

Berry: I have five adopted children. And when I first adopted, I knew nothing of parenting. So sociology was very much a part of our household. I am always examining and investigating how things work in our house. I would want that kind of perspective in a school.

The other thing that is a huge part of our household is diversity. My oldest son, his IQ was extremely low. He went from straight A student to straight F student because he could memorize. And when he went over to La Jolla Country Day, you couldn't memorize. You had to think critically. And so in that wonderful private school that had something of everything you could imagine, I would design a school like that that had a meditation club because he needed meditation. He needed educators who would review with him before class, which we learned was his optimum way of learning, not reviewing after class. I would borrow from the school Chatham Academy that my granddaughter is in now, where they group children based on their strengths, not their weaknesses. Maybe you’re high in math but need help with literature. They focus on what they’re strong in and then bring everything up.

And to get back to my main point, this school would have a tremendous amount of diversity. I think we've taught diversity the wrong way. We teach diversity as if it's something “for those people over there.” Diversity is really something for me, in here, because the more I explore, the more I evolve. I borrow from biodiversity: the more diverse the environment, the more intelligent are the beings who come from it, because you're pinging and ponging off of everything that's there. So there would be more economic diversity, not just diversity of languages and not just how we look, but also how we think; there would be more neurodivergence.

I would encourage learning where everybody would be a resource, not something that we interrogate and say, look, we have three of these, two of these and four of those, but something that we all learn from because everybody has something that we all need.

I would encourage learning where everybody would be a resource, not something that we interrogate and say, look, we have three of these, two of these and four of those, but something that we all learn from because everybody has something that we all need. And when I learn from you, I become better. It's not me reaching down this hand to help you. It is me needing to rub off on you, and it makes me better. And so we would have a mindset that the more diverse the environment, the group, the better other products that come from it.

I often administer a diversity assessment when I work with companies, and most of the leaders are astonished how little diversity they have in their lives. You simply can't think differently if you are seeing the same stuff all the time and living with one lens. Having people understand that is one thing. And then the training you receive needs to apply to the work that you do, the way you do it, so that it makes sense for you. So when I was working with L’Oreal recently, we talked about hair, because I was talking with the hair division. It became clear that diversity is not about a set of words or phrases or “these poor people are left out.” No, it’s understanding that I’m dumber without you in my life. We need to learn from each other to be smarter. That would be a pillar of an ideal school.

Net Assets: How do you find the energy and inspiration to keep going on so many different fronts, personally, through your various health issues including MS, and in your work with organizations and your own writing?

Berry: I started posting videos online during the pandemic to help five friends who were suicidal. I thought that only they could see it. I realized that other people were seeing it, and it went viral. But I’ve continued ever since, even when I was in the hospital for two weeks this summer, really sick, and then recovering for four weeks. I continued those stories every day. I had to wait for the two minutes, three minutes in a day when I had the energy to do it. When I posted, people were like, How are you doing this? Somebody said, I realized you were doing it to stay alive. And I said, no, I was doing it to live forever.

Because your legacy is not what you leave when you die. It's what you leave when you leave the room. You have the opportunity to make that room better while you're in it. And then when you walk out that door that's what people feel and know. So that is one of the things in my mind and in my heart as I keep going. I have some real high hopes for humanity. Nobody else has to believe with me. Nobody else has to have faith with me. When I'm in the midst of the stuff that I'm going through, I have to hold true to my beliefs. It’s one way to keep going.


Cecily Garber

Cecily Garber, Ph.D.

Associate Vice President, Communications and Member Relations


Arlington, VA

Cecily Garber is the editor of NBOA's Net Assets magazine, and directs NBOA's publication efforts, which includes books, reports and industry guidance. She also oversees the communications and member relations team, which is responsible for all membership, marketing and communications efforts. 


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